What We Do Without Thinking

Have you ever experienced doing a task without remembering doing it? This can be as simple as flushing the toilet. When we do such task without mental recognition it’s usually because they are habits of ours. A habit can be very good because in design they happen to allow us to focus our mental energy elsewhere. They are mental loops triggered by a specific moment which are called a cue. Habits can also be harmful, like when we drive through a drive thru automatically after work because that’s what we’ve been doing for years. In this scenario the cue could be the walk to the car when we start thinking about dinner. Habits can be scary when we think about them because we realize a big part of our day to day activities are done without much thinking. In fact, science shows about 40% of your daily tasks are habits.

Being aware of our habits can truly be life changing, continuing with the example above. Let’s call him Robert, one day decides he wants to change his eating habits and eat more at home. He does the grocery and plans to make dinner, for the first week he’s very motivated and this goes well. However on the second week the motivation fades and he’s thinking less about his new changes. After work he gets in his car and finds himself in the drive thru line, once there he decides he might as well order. This is how habits can really hinder our best intentions. Not only would Robert have to get out of the drive thru line but now he has a visual cue and a mental craving for fast food. Habits don’t only make us do things without thinking but they create a craving for an action.

The habit loop was first created by combining language from Charles Duhigg and design from Nir Eyal.

The picture above is a simplistic explanation of how habits are maintained. We receive a cue from our environment or body which in turn creates a craving anticipating the reward. We will then perform an action and receive a reward (a release of dopamine making us feel good). The craving is also a release of dopamine making it hard to resist doing the response. Fighting a food habit can be very similar to fighting ourselves when we become too hungry. Our brain send signals wanting food, because it thinks we are starving it wants calorie dense food and we will often eat it.

Recognizing our own food related habit can greatly increase our chances to achieve a sustainable weight loss. Lets continue with Robert. A solution to fight his habit of stopping at the fast food would be to identify the cue. If the cue was walking to his car after work, a way to stop the cue might be to park in a completely different spot. That way the habit of walking to his car isn’t automatic and he needs to think about where to walk to. Thus disrupting the cue and avoiding creating a craving for fast food. If his cue is finishing work, an option could be to change his end of work time, if possible. He could also take it a step further and change his route to home, making sure he avoids driving in front of the fast food he used to stop at. Overall the way to stop a bad habit is to find it’s cue and make sure we don’t trigger it. If you enjoyed learning about the science of habit, check out James Clear book Atomic Habits or The Power of Habits by Charles Duhigg.

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